From Ma, With Love is a campaign celebrating recollections of feminist tales and lessons, passed down to us by our mothers, this Mother’s Day. The first edition of this compilation has 16 heartwarming stories. ‘Care Work is Real Work’ by Nishma Jethwa is the third story in this series. You can download the entire publication here.
If you asked them, my parents might tell you that they don’t agree with my feminism. With my choice to still not get married. With my choice to not have children. With my choice to do a job that took me away from my home to unfamiliar places. Despite this, in my eyes, my parents have taught me some of the most important feminist lessons I’ve ever learnt.
One lesson, in particular, stands out to me because it is such a core part of my feminism today. It’s also something I don’t think I really understood until I saw it unfold in front of my own eyes. It is the learning that unpaid care work is real work. In fact, it is one of the most essential and, yet, ignored, elements to society’s wellbeing today. I now know that the majority of care work (like cleaning, cooking, caring for children or the elderly) globally is carried out by women. And, despite it being a critical element in the proper functioning of our communities, it is mostly unpaid, largely ignored by social policy and, generally speaking, not respected.
My mum grew up in a traditional Gujarati family in India, was married and sent off to a new country when she was 18. To date, 37 years later, she has been the sole individual fulfilling all of the care work in our small family of four. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure my dad, sister and I have pitched in here and there. But, that’s just it, we’ve simply pitched to “help” with a job that we never really saw as our responsibility.
It is difficult to assess the monetary contribution of my mum cooking dinner and cleaning up every day. It’s not easy to put a dollar value on her making sure we had snacks and clean rooms throughout our stressful study periods during school. How do we measure the value of her organising all our extra-curricular activities and ensuring we attended them all diligently? What about predicting all our food and drink cravings and ensuring the house was always stocked? Need new clothes? Mum has already bought some. Fallen ill? Mum knows what to do. Feeling sad? Mum will help!
My dad did compensate my mother financially for her contributions to the household with a salary equal to his own. Even though it was an accidental act of feminism, it made me question why this wasn’t the norm in other households, where women who did the majority or all of the care work (or “housewives”) weren’t given the same respect, value, or payment for their labour at home.
In fact, this act inspired a lot of questions in me, growing up. Observing my mother’s life, I became more aware of how an act of paying a woman for their labour was lauded as a special kindness, rather than an obvious right. It made me notice how we viewed care work as an expected duty for a married woman, one that she shouldn’t be paid for. Care work simply didn’t garner the same respect and value as “office work”, despite requiring daily physical, emotional, and mental effort, equitable to, if not more demanding than, the efforts exerted in an office space.
Even though my mother was compensated, I was still acutely aware that she – like many women of that generation – didn’t really have a choice when it came to becoming the primary care worker in the house. The circumstances of the era were such that this was simply part of the obligations, expectations, and responsibilities placed on her. She loved her husband, her children, her family and she accepted the role because she believed she had to do it for the family to prosper.
This was one of the things that sparked my activism at a young age. My mother’s lived experience taught me that I need to do my part to dismantle the system that forces women like my mother into thankless, unpaid roles that they didn’t have any real choice to refuse, only to also belittle those roles as a means to continue not paying them for their labour. It taught me that, even 30 years later, we’re still imposing those roles on young women – forcing them into work that they may not want and then belittling those jobs to manipulate them out of asking for rightful compensation. Growing up as part of the Indian Diaspora in London, taught me that there is much more work to be done before we can live in a world where this is not the norm.
Mapping and negotiating power
Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world
Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice